There’s a terrific piece in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle by Hazel White about how gardens keep us connected to “body time” — that is, how gardening keeps us in tune with earth time, the rhythms of the earth and our bodies, as opposed to “mechanical time” — the kind of clock-driven time that all too often has us running to accomplish things according to some external measure. We fall into “mechanical time” when we allow ourselves to be driven by “shoulds” — when we allow ourselves to be driven by plans we’ve already made and wind up all thrumming nerve endings as we rush to “get everything done”.
Garden time, body time, earth time happens when, as Hazel White did, we walk out the door on our way to someplace and notice, for example, that it’s been cool and rainy and the oxalis is ready to be thinned. And so we stop and thin the oxalis, not with an exasperated sigh, as though the oxalis is bothering us by being ready to be thinned, but rather, with something akin to a sigh of relief. Ah. It’s time to thin the oxalis — oh, and look, that vine that was so brittle and hard and difficult last fall is now all soft and gushy and ready for the compost. We stop and thin the oxalis, and open ourselves to seeing what else is ready in the garden, open ourselves to letting the garden’s time show us what is happening today, instead of imposing our own timetables on the garden.
If there’s anything I learned from having a garden for a year before Patrick died, was that things happen in their own time. I’ve spent the winter resisting doing anything that feels like it’s something I “should” be doing — which since I’ve always been a reasonably driven person, has been interesting. Instinctively, I just knew I needed to hole up this winter and allow my grief to work itself through my system, allow myself to go fallow like those raised beds out there. And every time I resisted this instinct, for instance by rousing myself to go skiing, I wound up feeling really disconnected and jittery. Some of my friends have worried, not unreasonably considering the history of depression in my family, but I’ve been around enough depressives to know what that looks like — this hasn’t been depression, it’s grief, and I was determined this time around to do grief on my own timetable.
When our brother Michael died, there was a lot of pressure on Patrick and I to be “okay”, to be “fine”, to assure the grownups around us that despite having lost our brother and despite our parents concurrent divorce, we were okay, we were fine, we weren’t adversely affected by the cataclysmic deconstruction of our family. We weren’t fine, of course, but we were good kids, and we wanted to please, so to the extent to which we were capable, we sort of tried to be okay. I grew up in the town depicted in Ordinary People, a town where the highest social values were placed on projecting a seamless appearance of not just normality, but success and wealth and status. So we learned early to hide how things were, to put together an “outfit”, to have lovely manners. We passed, in other words, as being significantly less broken than we were.
When Patrick died, I was determined I was going to do this my way, and to do it as honestly and transparently as I could. And if that meant giving myself as much time on the couch this winter as I needed to get through it, well, then that’s what it took. Coming home from Chicago after the funeral, there were garden tasks to be done — dead sunflowers and annuals to be pulled, zucchini vines and spent greens to be cleared from the raised beds, leaves to be raked, roses to be pruned and mulched against winter. When I came home from travelling at Christmas, my house was blanketed in snow and, feeling like those bulbs out there underground, I hunkered down, turned inward, gave myself permission to sit on the couch for weeks and weep. And now, the earth is still turning, the days are getting lighter, and despite being greeted this morning with a snowstorm, I can feel spring coming. Can feel my own energy and hope and vitality returning. I’m interested in things again.
Little did I know when I planted this garden that it would teach me how to survive the worst blow I could have imagined, that it’d give me the faith to get through losing Patrick, who was my rock, my ballast, my dearest friend and only true family. Little did I know that planting roses and vegetables and composting would give me both an activity and a metaphor engaging enough to see me through this terrible loss. Little did I know that my faith in the Church would fail, but that the garden (and Johnny Cash and a lot of African-American spiritual music) would provide a source of faith and hope and joy in the deepest, coldest, darkest winter. But it did. It does. To the extent that in the middle of what looks to be an all-day snowstorm, I can say without pretense that I’m looking forward to the dumptruck load of compost I ordered, looking forward to adding to my garden, planting the roses I ordered from back east, planting the vegetables, starting seeds in my basement. I’m off the couch, and planning what to cook for tomorrow night’s Oscar party I’m having with my dear and wonderful friends who have seen me through this winter. Cooking! I’m cooking again, having people over, letting the air and light and life back into my house.